Debunking the Myths of Learning Styles

ImageRecent studies, in addition to cumulative, quantifiable data, debunk the myths of curriculum-based instruction geared toward students’ learning styles, concluding that programs of study tailored toward specific learning styles are no more effective than well-defined instruction, defined later. Below are the most common myths associated with learning style theories:

Myth #1: Learners benefit the most when instruction is tailored to their identified learning styles.

Learners are often categorized into dichotomous types, despite increasing evidence that curriculum modified to a specific learning style is not necessarily more effective than well-defined teaching. Of course, the breadth of past research on learning styles complicates the over-emphasis of this practice; for example, one study concluded that there are over 80 various learning styles used to categorize learners (Coffield, Moseley, Hall, & Ecclestone). Included in the mounting number of learning styles, the research of Kolb (1981) has been cited as a theoretical foundation for assigning student learning styles; however, the research is problematic for several reasons, in particular the anomalies with the relationships between Kolb’s findings and previously conducted research. Such questionable research does not suggest that learning style theory is irrelevant or applicable, but instead is inconclusive. Educators should consider how learners prefer to learn and simultaneously recognize that some forms of learning may not suit the instructional practice for a given topic. Well-defined instruction considers both.

Myth #2: Learners are either left-brained or right-brained.

In conjunction with the categorization of learners by learning styles, instruction has also erroneously grouped learners by hemispheric brain dominance. Similar to faulty subsequent research with learning style theories, the early studies of brain dominance assumed conclusive findings on brains with severed corpus callosums – the band of fibers connecting the two hemispheres of the brain. These early tests on brain dominance were conducted on completely separated hemispheres, disregarding the conclusive findings of research on individuals with severed corpus callosums, a condition which often results in callosal dysfunction, including learning disabilities, developmental dyslexia, attention deficits, autism, and schizophrenia. To infer that individuals are hemispherically dominant is to disregard the scientific findings of the function of the corpus callosum. Later research acknowledged that most learners do not have severed callosums and, therefore, studied its role in learning theories more closely. Their conclusions noted that most learners use both hemispheres, and even in circumstances where learners have damage to a particular hemisphere, the other hemisphere is able to accommodate. Nielsen, Zielinski, Ferguson, Lainhart and Anderson’s (2013) study, using magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), supports the totality of the plasticity of the brain, noting that “our data are not consistent with a whole-brain phenotype of greater “left-brained” or greater “right-brained” network strengths across individuals” (para. 1). Learners do not have an overall dominant hemisphere, which is not to imply that certain actions do not occur more dominantly in one hemisphere than another. Instead, a process indicative of plasticity, an agile thought process, occurs. Educators should consider the implications of gearing instruction toward a specific hemisphere, and instead use a more holistic approach geared toward the entirety of the brain, both actions which would increase overall brain elasticity.

Myth #3 Completing certain tasks will increase intellect.

Holistic instruction, synonymous for well-defined instruction, should consider multiple activities, instead of focusing on those activities which have been wrongly identified as making a learner more intelligent. For example, the association of classical music on the cognitive improvement of spatial-temporal reasoning, also known as the Mozart Effect has been discredited by numerous researchers, including McKelvie and Low (2002). According to McKelvie and Low, “while the [Mozart] effect has been exploited in popular media and in the music therapy industry, it is very difficult to demonstrate empirically” (p. 255). Consequently, many of the trends with new and improved learning practices are based on either inconsistent research or faulty findings. Presently, the notion of brain training to exercise one’s brain as a muscular activity is popular in end-user applications. For example, established The Human Cognition Project (HCP), defined on their website as “a groundbreaking collaboration between researchers worldwide” (Lumosity, n.d.). As a result of participating in Lumosity’s brain training exercises, which range from puzzles to word problems, users are persuaded that problem-solving skills, memory, increased IQ, and concentration will improve. Lumosity’s claims are not inconsistent; however, users may only improve in comparable problems outside of the learning platform after practicing similar types of problems within the learning platform. For example, learners may improve with spatial puzzles, but this does not transfer to an overall improvement with IQ, only increasing the ability for users to improve skills with comparable spatial puzzles. The lack of transfer to broader activities is known as far transfer, and conclusive research has found that “IQ, although seemingly a necessary condition [of measuring transfer], is not a sufficient condition for transfer” (para. 12). Psychologists are leery of far transfer, and Lumosity’s apparent claims do not elaborate on the effectiveness of their products. In the end, users may be participating in a present-day version of the Mozart Effect, unbeknownst to their own participatory acts.

Use Well-Defined Instruction!

As mentioned previously, well-defined instruction should use mediums determined by how it suits delivered content, not to meet the needs of various learning styles. Finally, well-defined instruction should resist assessing a learning group for learning styles, but instead collect experiential knowledge prior to the delivery of a medium. Prerequisite knowledge and student interest in a given topic should be established to ensure content is aligned with planned instruction, which will also be of more use to an instructor than knowing the dividing classes of preferred learning styles. Previous knowledge could potentially remove the need for remedial instruction, and an interest poll could determine how to approach content for the given topic.

Conclusively, learners vary in ability, experience, and interest, but not restrictively in their learning styles. Although learners may prefer to receive content in a certain format, research does not suggest that accommodating to those particular formats for every lesson produces transference of learning. As educators, this understanding should be applied to the classroom, noting in particular the importance of well-defined instruction over instruction geared toward learning styles, the latter based on inconclusive evidence.


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